On January 12, 1893, his seventeenth birthday, Jack London signed onto the Sophie Sutherland, a splendid three-topmast schooner bound for seal hunting in the Bering Sea, and ultimately Japan. Jack was three years shy in experience and two years short in age of the minimum requirements for seamen, but his old friend Johnny Heinold vouched for Jack’s prowess on the water and unique character. And when the captain of the Sophie Sutherland met with Jack himself, he was greatly impressed with the young man’s maturity and determination and welcomed him aboard.
Jack knew that while he was technically their equal according to the ship’s articles, his new mates would view his youth and inexperience with resentment. They had earned their standing by serving their fellows on previous voyages, being hazed, and learning the ropes firsthand; he, on the other hand, was a landlubber by comparison who had never ventured into the deep sea. Jack could see that he had to prove he could carry his own weight from the get-go, or endure “seven months of hell at their hands.” He decided to work in such a way that none of his companions would be able to find fault with him:
“My method was deliberate, and simple, and drastic. In the first place, I resolved to do my work, no matter how hard or dangerous it might be, so well that no man would be called upon to do it for me. Further, I put ginger in my muscles. I never malingered when pulling on a rope, for I knew the eagle eyes of my forecastle mates were squinting for just such evidence of my inferiority. I made it a point to be among the first of the watch going on deck, among the last going below, never leaving a sheet or tackle for someone else to coil over a pin. I was always eager for the run aloft for the shifting of topsail sheets and tacks, or for the setting or taking in of topsails; and in these matters I did more than my share.”
Because Jack did all that was asked of him and more, his thumic pride and sense of honor demanded that he be treated with respect, not as one of the other sailors’ servants. If there was any question of this in his shipmates’ minds, it was convincingly resolved one afternoon down below deck. Red John, an enormous and imposing Swede, had been looking for trouble with Jack since the Sophie Sutherland set sail. On his “peggy day,” in which he was responsible for cleaning the kitchen’s dishes and the sailors’ quarters, Red John decided that Jack ought to do the chores for him. Several times he gave his gruff command, but Jack, who was relaxing on his bed weaving a rope mat, did not offer the slightest acknowledgement to the Swede’s entreaties.
Red John, in his anger, threw down the coffee pot he was holding and backhanded the recalcitrant youth across the mouth. London, exhibiting the kind of cat-like reflexes he would later ascribe to the “Sea Wolf,” landed a blow right between the other man’s eyes, dodged his sledgehammer-like counter, and then leapt onto his shoulders. Jack wrapped his legs around Red John’s ox-like neck, and began choking him and digging at his eyes with his fingers. Red John fought back by ferociously ramming Jack against the cabin’s beams, opening up wounds on the teenager’s scalp and upper body. Though blood dripped down his face, Jack simply squeezed all the harder, and would not give in until his opponent finally gurgled an assent to his repeated query: “Will y’leave me alone, now? Will y’let up on me for keeps? Will y’leave me be?—Will yuh Will yuh?”
Jack’s stand won him enormous respect from his shipmates, including Red John himself, who was thoroughly impressed with this “wild cat” who refused to be whipped. “It was my pride that I was taken in as an equal, in spirit as well as in fact,” Jack recalled. “From then on, everything was beautiful, and the voyage promised to be a happy one.”
John Barleycorn on the Adventure Path
The Sophie Sutherland carried no alcohol, and Jack didn’t mind at all. He felt his foggy mind clearing and sharpening up once more, and was content to spend his free time reading the small library of books he had brought along, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and most appropriately, Moby-Dick.
Yet when the ship would pull into port, it was a different story. London discovered once more that “the adventure-path” is “one of John Barleycorn’s favorite stomping grounds.” As he had observed along the waterfront back home, Jack found that alcohol was both a constant accompaniment to the life of exploration, and a detractor from it.
When the ship pulled into harbor in the Bonin Islands, around 600 miles south of Japan’s mainland, for water and repairs, Jack gazed with wonder upon the jungle-covered volcanic peaks, and breathed in the new, exotic scent of the tropics. “It was my first foreign land,” Jack remembered. “I had won to the other side of the world, and I would see all I had read in the books come true. I was wild to get ashore.”
Jack and his two best mates spotted “a pathway that disappeared up a wild canyon, emerged on a steep, bare lava-slope, and thereafter appeared and disappeared, ever climbing, among the palms and flowers.” The men were stirred to follow the path wherever it might lead, sure that they would come across “beautiful scenery, and strange native villages, and find Heaven alone knew what adventure at the end.” Jack was excited and “keen for anything.”
But as the young men rowed onto the beach, they came first to the island’s small town, where sailors from around the world were riotously drinking, singing, and dancing. Jack’s companions suggested they have a drink before starting on their hike, and London felt he could not decline “these two chesty shipmates”: “Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on comradeship. It was the way of life.”
Jack and his friends made it no further ashore. Over the next ten days, they camped out at the small bars in town and drank their fill. One of his friends practically went mad with booze and destroyed some local property that they had to pitch in and replace. Jack lost his shoes, pants, and belt. And they never did, Jack recalled with regret, “climb that lava path among the flowers.”
It was the same story when the Sophie Sutherland landed in Japan. After the ship had hunted seals for three months in the Bering Sea and filled its holds with their skins, it pulled into port at Yokohama. Jack was eager to get off the ship and explore the country, but stopped first at a public house to have just a couple of drinks with the boys. Two weeks later, all he had seen of Japan was “a drinking-place which was very like a drinking place at home or anywhere else over the world.”
Jack Takes the Helm
If Jack missed out on some degrees of adventure, there were still plenty to be had during his voyage of the Pacific. Its apex, what Jack would later recall as his “moment of highest living,” occurred when the Sophie Sutherland sailed into the thick of a typhoon off the coast of Japan. The seas were so rough, the ship so taxing to control, that each man could take but a one-hour shift at the wheel before requiring rest, and every crew member had to take a turn. Finally at seven in the morning, Jack was called up from his quarters to man the helm. A seventeen-year-old greenhorn, it was up to him alone to battle nature’s fiercest elements and pilot the ship and its passengers safely through the storm:
“Not a stitch of canvas was set. We were running before [the storm] with bare poles, yet the schooner fairly tore along. The seas were all of an eighth of a mile apart, and the wind snatched the whitecaps from their summits, filling the air so thick with driving spray that it was impossible to see more than two waves at a time. The schooner was almost unmanageable, rolling her rail under to starboard and to port, veering and yawing anywhere between southeast and southwest, and threatening when the huge seas lifted under her quarter, to broach to. Had she broached to, she would ultimately have been reported lost with all hands and no tidings.
I took the wheel. The sailing master watched me for a space. He was afraid of my youth, feared that I lacked the strength and the nerve. But when he saw me successfully wrestle the schooner through several bouts, he went below to breakfast. Fore and aft, all hands were below at breakfast. Had she broached to, not one of them would ever have reached the deck. For forty minutes I stood there alone at the wheel, in my grasp the wildly careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men. Once we were pooped. I saw it coming, and, half-drowned, with tons of water crushing me, I checked the schooner’s rush to broach to. At the end of the hour, sweating and played out, I was relieved. But I had done it! With my own hands I had done the trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves.”
London would later say that this experience was “possibly the proudest achievement of my life”:
“My delight was in that I had done it, not in the fact that twenty-two men knew I had done it. Within the year, over half of them were dead and gone, and yet my pride in the thing performed was not diminished by half…This delight is peculiarly my own and does not depend upon witnesses. When I have done some such thing, I am exalted. I glow all over. I am aware of a pride in myself that is mine and mine alone. It is organic; every fiber of me is thrilling with it…
Life that lives is life successful, and success is the breath in its nostrils. The achievement of a difficult feat is successful adjustment to a sternly exacting environment. The more difficult the feat, the greater the satisfaction at its accomplishment.”
The Sophie Sutherland arrived back to San Francisco on August 26, 1893. Jack had been away for seven months, and in that time had become a man among men. He would always see this voyage as a seminal turning point in his life – a rite of passage. Charmian wrote:
“The pleasure of camaraderie with his fellows below or on deck, or aloft in the shrieking rigging in a gale, was not to be calculated. No exhausting strain could dampen the ardor of holding his own with the best in sheer muscular rivalry. Even in middle age, for him to be able to say, ‘I have toiled all night, both watches on deck, off the coast of Japan,’ meant more to him than the best passage he had ever written.”
Unfortunately, Jack’s high-flying life of adventure came quickly to a halt once he was home. The money he had earned on his voyage, handed dutifully over to his family, was quickly gone. The country had plunged into an economic depression, and professional work of any kind was nearly impossible to come by. Many of Jack’s friends had been killed or gone to jail while he had been away, and risking a similar fate by returning to the life of an oyster pirate held no appeal. Jack needed a regular job to support his family, and was finally forced to take work in a jute mill factory wrapping the vegetable fiber thread around bobbins, making ten cents an hour…the same wage he had earned at the pickle cannery a few years earlier. Everything had changed, and nothing had.
Read the Entire Jack London Series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Boyhood
Part 3: Oyster Pirate
Part 4: Pacific Voyage
Part 5: On the Road
Part 6: Back to School
Part 7: Into the Klondike
Part 8: Success at Last
Part 9: The Long Sickness
Part 10: Ashes
Part 11: Conclusion
Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley
Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw
Complete Works of Jack London (all of London’s works are available free in the public domain, or you can download his hundreds of writings all in one place for $3, which is just plain awesome)